All is Doku


I was on Twitter on my laptop at Peet’s coffee that morning, relaying to the human race an irreverent thought I’d had about the Peet’s playlist (“Of all the Ramones songs!”) when I saw that William Gibson, the Father of Cyberpunk, had retweeted the following question from a fellow author: “Are there any snake venoms that don’t kill you, but just get you high? Asking for a fictional friend.”

I remembered tales I’d heard when I lived in Japan, of an Okinawan alcoholic drink called habu-shu, literally meaning “habu booze” (or habooze, when I’m in charge) where a habu is a type of pit viper claiming residence in parts of Japan as well as other Pacific archipelagos and throughout Southeast Asia. Don’t let the cute name fool you; everything sounds kind of cute in Japanese. And habus, I’ve heard, are highly venomous. And yet there exists a beverage made out of them.

I checked William Gibson’s friend’s tweet’s replies and discovered there were already dozens. Someone made a joke about drinking a snakebite, which is equal parts beer and cider. Another posted a photo of what looked like a pickled cobra and offered no explanation. Someone struggled feebly to weave his disdain for mean women into a joke about kissing snakes. Another made a joke about trouser snakes. Several people linked to articles whose thumbnails were crisp stock images of people “milking” snake heads into various types of drinking glass.

milking snake 1

One person swooned over Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York—“He got me high!” Another replied that the sequel, Escape From L.A. was very bad. I thought about how the president in Escape from L.A. seemed so implausibly wicked in 1996. I opened a YouTube tab (a YouTab, when I’m in charge) and searched for a clip of the final scene of that movie, when the president character has substantial screen time. YouTube yielded several similar options, and I watched the final scene in its entirety at 240p. Now fresh in my mind, it seemed to me that the characterization of the president was by far the most believable aspect of the whole film.

Returning to the primary task at hand, I tabbed back to William Gibson’s friend’s tweet’s replies. One person said this, which I thought was far and away the best reply:

Nobody had mentioned habu-shu, but I was pretty sure the whole point of habushu was that it contained habu venom, which Okinawans must have found a way to make just potent enough to get you high without causing your spinal fluid to turn into something resembling rice pudding. Otherwise you have to figure they’d just round up some garter snakes.

“Here is a chance to help one of William Gibson’s peers,” I thought. Somewhere deep inside I also thought, “Here is a chance to show some strangers that I know a thing that none of them know.”

In the name of diligence, I set out to confirm my admittedly fuzzy recollections about habu-shu. Social media is no place for spreading misinformation or half-truths—especially to the likes of Father of Cyberpunk William Gibson and his professional peers.

I typed habu into Google. It finished my thought with shu and brought up an English-language Wikipedia article on the subject. Here I confirmed:

Habu are some of the most dangerous snakes in Japan; their venom can cause nausea, vomiting, hypotension, and even death.

-The drink itself is awamori-based, awamori being a variety of rice wine made exclusively in Okinawa. The marriage of Okinawan snakes to Okinawan rice wine makes habu-shu an intensely Okinawan souvenir-bomb akin to, I don’t know, those Texan cowboy boots literally made out of cow.

-Sometimes they stick the whole entire snake right in the bottle so that it’ll look right at home atop a mad scientist’s curio cabinet. Reportedly there are two common ways for the snake to be inserted into the bottle, both awful:

1) The live viper is simply inserted into the bottle of alcohol, which is then sealed, drowning the snake to death.

2) The snake is placed on ice until it passes out, then gutted alive, drained, and sewn up. The still-alive snake is then thawed, eventually wakes up, and is lucid just long enough to strike a furious bitey pose, a final eff-you to its captors. (If only snakes could give the finger.) The snake is preserved in this very punk-rock pose by way of an “ethanol bath,” where it stays for a whole month before finally being inserted into the bottle.

Habu face

Here I paused and observed a moment of silence in memoriam of my faith in the human race. Yes, I thought to William Gibson’s friend. It would seem there are such snake venoms. And may all who enjoy them burn.”

I read on.

“It is a typical practice to age the awamori for a long period of time. The alcohol helps the venom to dissolve and become non-poisonous.”

Huh. So wait. Then people aren’t getting high off the venom?

I regarded this with disbelief and, as I do whenever I regard an English-language publication on a Japanese topic with disbelief, I ran a Japanese-language Google search, to get the real story.

ハブ酒 毒

habu-shu venom

Let it be known that the Japanese language does not strictly differentiate between poison and venom, though more pedantic English-speakers would be quick to point out that poison must be actively consumed—through the stomach, lungs, or skin—by the recipient, while venom is injected through a wound on a passive recipient. In Japanese, these details are irrelevant. All is simply doku (毒).

Google led me to a Japanese article on an editorial website targeting businessmen and businesswomen in their early thirties.

The Reason Habu-shu Isn’t Poisonous

The article established context by introducing the concept of infused liqueurs, which, it said, are typically made with fruit preserved in sugar and alcohol, but, interestingly enough, can also be made with more adventurous things like coffee, a cactus, or—WHOA—even deadly snakes.

Whatever your agent, the infusion process extracts valuable nutrients, creating a dram with possible medicinal qualities. Why, then, the article posed in a destabilizing moment, is not the poison-venom of a habu also extracted, creating a dram with possible deadly qualities?

Momentarily my attention shifted to the three banner ads to the right of the introductory paragraph. One was a 4×3 grid of clickable photos of curvaceous Japanese women in swimwear, and featured no text. No explanation was needed. The next was a side-view photo of a consternated woman in much more conservative attire, overlain with text reading,

Love Science Research Center

Find Yours Using Psychology and Quantitative Data!

The next was a close-up shot of a wrinkly mouth with a syringe in it, and English text reading,

Forget Anti-Wrinkle Injections

I did so, first pausing for a half-second to note that at some point we’d all indeed crossed the threshold into a bleak, Gibsonian future.

“Habu-shu is far from the only poisonous-animal-infused liqueur in the world—others include scorpion vodka, mamushi wine (mamushi being another kind of Japanese pit viper), and saké infused with preserved suzume-bachi.”

I opened a new tab and Googled suzume-bachi to learn the English term for it, and was taken to an English-language Wikipedia article for the “Asian giant hornet,” colloquially known as the “yak-killer hornet.” Did you know that yak-killer hornets engage in a communal process known as trophallaxis, wherein food and fluids are shared by way of mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth transfer?

The trophallaxis Wikipedia article offered a wealth of information on the process, which is common in many species of social insect including termites, ants, and of course, hornets, the yak-killing hornet among them. I returned my attention to the article at hand.

“The precise reason why such beverages are consumable without causing poison-venom to circulate through your system is actually still not fully clear, but there are a number of theories. One is that the alcohol dilutes the poison-venom and breaks it down, making it drinkable.”

The “Most Popular Article” rankings began in a vertical list to the right of this paragraph.

How Old is Too Old for Children to Take Baths with Parents of the Opposite Sex?

10 Office Stationery Items Every Man Should Own at Thirty

A notification pane slid into view from the upper-right corner of the screen.

New Notification
@broppelganger: It’s not like they’re gonna play I Wanna Be Sedated at a coffee sh …

“A second is that the alcohol causes the poison to coagulate, preventing it from mixing in. Whatever the case, it’s been proven time and again over the ages that these drinks can be consumed without risk.”

This I found bizarre. They still don’t know why it’s safe to drink? That means that everyone drinking habu-shu today is toying with the prospect of nausea, vomiting, hypotension, and even death, lulled into a sense of security solely by an unexplained precedent. And all without even the allure of getting high off the venom. So why drink it? Don’t people know awamori is available without dead animals in it?

I clicked back to tab seven of fourteen in my browser, which still had open the English Wikipedia article on habu-shu.

“Appreciated since ancient times, habu-shu is believed by some to have medicinal properties. A habu can go without eating anything for as long as a year and still have immense energy. Another desired trait that is thought to be passed on is the positive effect on the male libido. A habu snake is able to mate for as long as 26 hours, which causes some to believe that a drink of habu-shu may help sexual dysfunction in men.”

Nothing but an old wives’ tale perpetuated by the tourism industry. Hmph. Tourists should fact-check. So should old wives, for that matter.

The sun was high in the sky now, and a twinge of remorse struck me as I felt it gleam down on my face through the window of Peet’s. My cup had long run dry. I needed to be done with this. I closed tabs six through fourteen, clicked back to the Twitter tab, and clicked the Reply button on William Gibson’s friend’s tweet.


One thought on “All is Doku

  1. HA! My very first trip to a foreign land was Okinawa in December 1967. We were warned about the habu. For the entertainment of tourists, locals would frequently show fight-to-the-death contests between a habu and a mongoose. (The mongoose usually wins!) I never encountered one—nor a mongoose, for that matter. I loved how you so consciously or unconsciously demonstrated how idle curiosity can drag one down the rabbit hole of “research,” when one question seems to just generate another question. And another. And another. After 18 opened tabs, I loved your one-word answer to the original question—“No!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s